Sensing High Water in Paris

Flood Pont Alexandre III.jpg

Paris, Pont Alexandre III, January 18, 1910

In 1910 Paris suffered its second largest flood since 1658. Today the city is inundated by a public memory of that event of just over a century ago. The common statistical notion of a “hundred year flood,” or a 1% annual flood chance, is often misunderstood by the public, feeding back into rising memories of 1910 to create fear that Paris is “due” for a catastrophic flood “any day.” But floods are getting worse. Another trigger for flooding concerns was central Europe’s inundation in August 2002, especially the Vlata river through Prague, which became a central case study for the Paris Police in developing their own emergency flood plan (PSSI). As geographer Magali Reghezza wrote, other storm and flood disasters could “serve as examples” for Parisians working through their own fears and forecasts about rising water: the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, plus Katrina, Fukushima, and Sandy. Building on my previous post on Venice, this post reflects on how Parisians in recent years have attempted to perceive a future characterized by rising water, by showing how they anticipate experiencing it. In a word, I will discuss ways Parisians are making high water sensible.

Public flood prediction swelled around director Bruno Victor-Pujebet’s 2006 shockumentary Paris 2011: The Great Flood. The film follows the Prefecture of Police’s “crisis cell” (special office for emergency management), as it coordinates emergency flood response. Dramatic cascading failures of interlinked infrastructures punctuate the film. In one subplot, a woman goes into labor just as Parisians begin en masse to remove their cars from flood-prone underground parking garages, snarling traffic and stranding her in a taxi crawling toward the hospital. Her husband, who works for the regional transport authority (RATP), cannot join her because he is called up on emergency duty. While building flood barriers and evacuating passengers, he talks to his wife on a mobile phone until the network fails. Eventually she is evacuated to a second hospital, and he scrambles to find her before she gives birth, succeeding with seconds to spare. In another subplot, a young couple get stuck in a glass phone booth with an electrically-controlled door when the power goes out and the cabin begins filling with water. Like the last couple, they are saved with seconds to spare. The film sends mixed messages, opening with the reassuring line “an emergency plan exists for Paris,” but ending with the more disturbing question, “Will it work?” Here, the culture of fear meets the culture of happy endings, like a more true-to-life French The Day After Tomorrow.

As if responding to the film, in 2007 regional authorities released their “Plan for Prevention of Inundation Risk” (PPRI), which addressed similar concerns about how high water could impact infrastructures including: railways, subways, and heliports; distribution networks for water, sewage, gas, electricity, heating, and air conditioning; several radio, telephone, and television providers; and, finally, postal service. The PPRI’s primary contribution was a set of detailed color-coded interactive maps that calculate and visualize the varying risks of different parts of the Paris region for the public. These maps were among the earliest digital tools that Parisians devised to make high water sensible.

Pascal Popelin is a suburban socialist deputy, and since 2001, president of the “Great Lakes of the Seine,” 4 massive anti-flood reservoirs built from the 1930s to the 1980s upstream of Paris. Popelin published a popular history of Paris flooding called The Day When the Waters Return in 2009. He frames flooding as an urgent government issue, and a test of urban resilience, social solidarity, and our ability to survive without the comfort and convenience of modern technologies. Parisians admirably displayed their solidarity in 1910, he argues, but will they do the same confronted with the next flood?

Flood predictions crested in 2010 during the centennial commemorations of 1910. I was in Paris for research that January when Tele France 1 reported the anniversary, calling floods the capital’s “number one” disaster risk. Timed for the centennial, the first Anglophone history of the 1910 flood, Jeffrey H. Jackson’s Paris Under Water, was co-promoted with the Paris City Historical Library’s excellent retrospective exhibit (click to view historical photographs of the damage). Attending the exhibit with Jackson and some close colleagues in a basement gallery near the river made us acutely aware that, 100 years before that day, we would have been under water. TV news, historical books and exhibits, and popular memory alike are working to make high water sensible.

A flood below catastrophic level (8 meters) struck in February, 2013. News website France Info warned, “Paris under threat of a ‘flood of the century.” TF1, Le Monde (also here), and L’Express detailed measures being taken to protect against future floods. One important measure, which feeds on and into public discourse on flooding, is public education. In 2014, the Paris Police began an annual summer public education program called, cutely,Splash ’75,” (evoking Paris’s postal code), held in tents along the river, and accompanied by the Police band. The 2015 event included large group demonstrations of first-responder rescue and supply operations, as well as special Police and Firefighter teams for boating, diving, and water rescues. Smaller workshops for children covered: mapping, flood prevention, art, packing an emergency bag, risk, and transport in the flooded city (specifically safety for rescue boats). Finally, there was a public open house, where people of all ages could freely circulate through the workshop spaces.

Despite such efforts, the French edition of Slate online did not much trust the authorities: “In case of a Seine flood, Parisians are going to have to take care of themselves (luckily, there’s an app for that).” The mobile app, called humorously “Swimming prohibited” (Baignade interdite), calculates flood risk at your GPS position. It was produced by the IUA, an important Paris city-planning institute. They wrote: “More profoundly, this application agitates the troubled water of urbanization in the Ile-de-France. Our beautiful metropole-capital reveals itself as a castle built on a possible swamp, without a battle plan or a rampart, faced with the rising waters that announce themselves. ‘Sensitization’ (all that is left for people when they have no money to construct barrages [dams/gates] or rebuild their basements) reveals itself as indispensable. And frightening.” As in the film Paris 2011, becoming sensitized to risk inspires ambivalence—both indispensable and frightening. Now a cellphone ping might be a flood alert–another example of  digital technology making high water sensible.

The word “sensitization” shows that Parisians are seeking ways to imagine future flooding in a richly sensory way. The Swimming Prohibited app is not the only digital or technological attempt to sense high water. In 2014, the Police posted a YouTube video (above) of an animated simulation of flooding in central Paris. In 2011, the digital arts group ArtefactoryLab posted a much spookier, and more artistic, video (below) featuring footage of Paris digitally overlaid with animated water and haunting ambient music.

Parisians thus mobilize memories of 1910 to critique government, preach public preparedness, make plans for urban or environmental transformation, or create apocalyptic visions. They also do so to make high water sensible, and to make informal risk calculations, trying to reckon disaster preparedness in terms of psychology, infrastructure, insurance, and organizational prowess.

Public debate is joined by expert discourse intended to bring more evidence and reasoning to this sometimes exaggerated discussion. One 2011 study used GIS cartography to establish a geography of risk. Recent studies by the OECD and by insurance company Swiss Re have attempted to estimate the monetary cost of another flood, but damage figures range from 3 to 30 billion euros. Ultimately, these concrete figures are debatable and mean less than more immediate, less tangible things—social qualities like resilience, community, and solidarity; technological or institutional vulnerability; and cognitive problems like prediction and certainty.

Disasters test the resilience of our cities, societies, and environments. When Parisians imagine, debate, and plan for future floods, they use their imagination to “test” resilience. Narrating test scenarios, therefore, requires remembering the past in order to imagine the future. Disaster memory of 1910 is then repurposed as a way to see the future, reminding us that memory work, like forecast and prediction, always finds its roots in the present.

La seine sort de son lit - Pont Alexandre III

Paris, Pont Alexandre III, June 3, 2016; click photo to compare with 1910 flood.

The imaginative ways that Parisians anticipate future floods serve symbolically as an allegory for rising sea levels. Allusions to other storm/flood disasters in Indonesia, Louisiana, and Fukushima position Paris within global climate change. French environmental publications often argue that climate change is making floods more common and more severe (see here, here, and here). Fears of future floods thus anchor related concerns—about disaster preparedness, about climate change and the Anthropocene, and about dependence on infrastructure in today’s deeply sociotechnical and envirotechnical cities. Meanwhile Parisians watch and wait. In March of 2016, Paris held a flood simulation and drill, in which first responders and citizens mobilized as if a real flood was imminent. The drill was followed forebodingly that June by the city’s worst flood in 30 years (over 6 meters), which did not arrive during the winter, as is typical in historical flood patterns. If Parisians are now sensing high water with history, memory, imagination, and digital technologies, they may soon be sensing it with their toes.

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